My Tiny Obsessions
A section about my love of miniatures and the settings I make for my stories.
On Miniatures and My Nerves
There is no time in my life at which I was not fascinated with the miniature--realistic or fantastic, perfectly "real"-looking or handmade and showing every bit of labor skilled or unskilled. I used to make tiny fairy gardens in the moss and forget-me-nots of backyards and playgrounds, and I played with Barbies (not quite the same as to-scale fine miniatures), and I read, read, read.
Naturally, I loved books like The Borrowers and the Rumer Godden novels about girls who made, say, detailed and culturally authentic homes for their Japanese dolls. Edward Eager's Knight's Castle, in which an ancient toy lead knight makes sure the children's arrangements of small houses, bottles, soldiers, and other little things come to life and wreak havoc when the lights are out. Novels and stories, too many to count, in which dolls were alive and living their own stories--and sometimes affecting the big humans who thought they were in control.
When I was sixteen, I built a simple row house from a kit. It was so up-and-down that my father referred to it as a tenement, meaning a slum haven. But I loved it! I decorated it carefully with tiny wallpapers, quilts I made by hand and tied onto the brass beds, a very special red velvet sofa in what I then thought was the height of Victorian good taste, a sofa I longed to sit in (back then it cost $40, which is about $115 in 2018 money).
I left the dollhouse behind when I went to college, of course, but my father kept it and most of its contents. When he died in 1996, I was surprised to find so many of my things in his storage locked--he, who had always despised clutter, had preserved mine. I was in grad school in a tiny apartment, so I reluctantly gave the house away to a fundraising sale. But I kept that little red sofa and a few other things ... and just recently, Xmas 2018, I found a long-sealed box that contained some of the other pieces. My heart felt very full.
My passion for the wee, the minuscule, the deceptively manageable--well, it has enjoyed a rebirth. For years, my husband has been giving me books on miniatures and houses, and we always go see small things when we travel (the Thorne Rooms at the Chicago Art Institute, the dollhouse wing at Copenhagen's National Museum).
Some of my favorite miniature elements can be found on one of my Pinterest pages here.
As I've been writing a story about twin sisters and ghosts, I've found a dollhouse creeping in. In the first draft, it was an accessory; by now it's a full-fledged plot device. In order to do it justice in the novel, I had to research what's available online ... and to add real authenticity, I absolutely "had" to build a new house and decorate it in the spirit of one Great-Aunt Nelly.
Nelly Rasmussen was a spirit-medium in the Danish town of Gilleleje, which is on the north coast of Sjælland (the island home to Copenhagen and Elsinore, and the town from which Danes smuggled Jews across the water to Sweden during the Nazi occupation). I've thought a lot about her lately ... A rather unattractive young lady--and one who would always be young, because the more time she spent on the Other Side, the harder it became for her to leave, and she died while in a trance Beyond the Veil.
Or so goes one story, the story I like best and the one my mother told me. My grandmother, very pragmatic, insisted that Nelly had epilepsy or cancer, something recognizable. And just this past fall, my aunt told me that she'd heard Nelly died (well before my aunt was born) as a suicide--that the things she saw in her trances were so awful that she killed herself to make them stop. Aunt Gunver remembers something to do with water; perhaps Nelly threw herself into a well or a pond.
Poor Nelly. I feel for her. In 2012, I suffered some head injuries that left me with permanent migraines and occasional hallucinations that go beyond the usual ocular disturbances. (Greg tells me to stop mentioning these visions to doctors, as he's seen those doctors jotting notes and then asking follow-up questions about schizophrenia.)
Life gets very small when you're chronically ill. Simple tasks are all but impossible; tiny objects carry vast significance.
Full disclosure: I'm also, maybe, reluctantly, a wee bit psychic myself. No joke. I am very good at predicting pregnancies and baby genders, even birth defects. I've never been wrong, and it's eerie, even to me; so eerie that I've stopped doing it out loud, so don't even ask!
Crafting helps chase away some of the migraine and nerve pain, and I especially love working on the house. I'm getting a little too Type A about making it all just right ...
Great-Aunt Nelly is also a character in my twins/ghosts novel, which is set between 1917 and 1921, which were the last years of the real Nelly's life. In the novel, Influence, she's a middle-aged ghost who died in a village like Gilleleje, but in Scotland--Arbroath, one of my favorite places in Scotland--and she combines some qualities of my other great-aunts: Elsa was very fat and (so my mother used to say) used a bicycle to lean on so she could walk to the town center for shopping. Elsa, Vida, and Tora all wore big bonnets as workers for the Salvation Army, and I gave the fictional Nelly a very big black taffeta bonnet that shows up in photographs when Nelly, who loves visiting on the living side of the Veil, too, is in the mood to issue a family member a dire warning.
I'm also giving Nelly, both Nellys, a house. A little seaside cottage in which to be happy. I bought the cheapest kit I could find, the Orchid dollhouse by Greenleaf, and maddened myself with the splintering plywood and endless sanding. As of Christmas Day 2018, I've spent over six weeks prepping the materials, painting, papering, just plain getting ready. The door that came with the kit looked silly, so I upgraded ... and down the rabbit hole I've gone, as the door is so nice it makes the windows look shabby. Anyone who's painted a house knows the conundrum.
A few things I know belong in or on the Nelly house: a black parlor suite, because that's what the Nelly in the novel has both while she's alive and after she's dead; her parlor is always ready to welcome spirits with a cup of tea. And the name Mindet, which was the name of a cottage where my other great-aunts lived in Gilleleje (not the family home; that was right by the churchyard).
Mindet means "the memory" or "the reminder," and that's just perfect.
On this page, I'm posting pictures of the Nelly house in progress, as well as some other projects. There are also separate pages for some of the projects.
I've always wanted to make lots of mini houses for my characters and imagination to live in ... Domestic sculpture takes up a lot of space, but making something out of humble materials is so satisfying!
Seeing a structure and setting emerge helps me with my writing (I also like to sew life-size clothing and make jewelry; hobbies steady the nerves and focus the imagination, and I always write better with a craft underway).
The house in which we live may be chaotic, and that's partly due to my crafting ... but Mindet is doing well and should soon be put together! Then on to other projects--an art nouveau lounge dedicated to arts in many forms, a tiny witch's cottage with faux stone walls and thatch and stucco I'm figuring out how to make myself ... And an issue of the magazine Greg and I edit, Broad Street, is dedicated to the theme "Small Things, Partial Cures," demonstrating that the miniature and the medical make good bedfellows.
Figuring out what goes with what. The furniture is from my teen years. That sofa was my ideal sofa for decades; my father bought it for me for $38--$115 in today's cash. The next year, I bought the little folding rocker for $20. When I was sixteen, I made the table from an X-Acto kit, and I needlepointed the little blue rug very painstakingly.
In 2019, I decided I wanted to put these things into a room box that would speak to my interests during that time ... medieval tapestries, Persian-style rugs.
I set these things together on the mantel of my writing room. Come to think of it, that green could look very nice with this furniture. And I loved green in my youth, too.
No room is finished until it has a cat. Even when the room is tiny and the cat is somewhat out of scale.
This setting didn't feel quite right for the favorite childhood minis. Must think about it some more. Meanwhile, I have a spare room.
Above are two of the little quilts I made at age sixteen for my "tenement house" when I was sixteen. I sewed all the patches by hand and then sewed them onto the beds for realistic fit.
This is the manufacturer's idea of what the Orchid house could look like outside. And it turns out that there's a big community of people on the internet who have made and modified Orchids--like people who pimp cheap vintage cars. Google "Orchid dollhouse" and see what you get! Or look here on Pinterest for ideas.
It's easiest to paint and paper before you glue the structure together. Nelly's house has blue wallpaper for the parlor, pale green floral for the big upstairs, and very thin real strips of walnut-stained wood for the floors. Here the kitchen area is waiting for its paper, which was delayed in the mail.